Hannah Richards dives into the depths of stem cell research and explores the latest developments both in the lab and in the clinic.
In the last few years, the explosion in stem cell research amongst scientific and medical groups has sparked interest within political, pharmaceutical and ethical communities. Stem cells offer great potential to treat diseases that cannot be cured with current medicines; however there is much debate surrounding this controversial research. The concern lies in the use of embryonic stem cells, as it involves the destruction of human embryos with the potential to develop into human life. Embryonic stem cell research has truly divided the European Union, with Germany, Italy and Austria keeping this research illegal.
“Stem cells have been used to engineer new skin tissue that can be grafted onto burn victims”
On the other hand, Sweden, Britain, Greece, Finland and the Netherlands permit embryonic stem cell use with strict guide lines. At the core of the debate is the question: is this destruction of life for the greater good?
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells that are able to differentiate into specialised cell types in the right conditions. Stem cells are able to self-renew; they can multiply whilst maintaining their ability to differentiate into other cell types. Stem cells can become cells of the blood, bones, heart, skin, muscles and brain. There are two main sources of stem cells – embryonic stem cells, taken from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, and adult stem cells, found in various tissues including bone marrow.
What are they used for?
There are many uses for stems cells, with organ and tissue regeneration being the most important due to the demand for organs exceeding the donor supply. Stem cells could actually be used to grow a certain type of tissue or organ when directed to differentiate in a particular way. For example, stems cells have been used to engineer new skin tissue that can be grafted onto burn victims. Recently, scientists in Australia have succeeded in growing “organoids” which are comparable to the developmental stages of a baby’s kidney, with collecting ducts and filtering units. There have been breakthroughs in treating infertility, Parkinson’s and heart disease, and even in curing blindness. In September 2011, a patient in California was treated with embryonic stem cells in an approved clinical trial for patients with a spinal cord injury.
What potential do they have for the future of medicine?
There have been so many recent advances involving stem cells, so what does the future hold for stem cell research? We will see some exciting new drugs come into play; these drugs may achieve the same remarkable feats but without having to remove stem cells from the body. For example, these drugs may activate cells in an individual’s bone marrow and encourage migration to parts of the body where repair is needed. Researchers have discussed ways to combine 3D-printing with the promising future of stem cells. This idea could be used in the future to successfully yield uniform “building blocks” of stem cells to build larger tissues and organs.